I have never published a movie review on creativewritingnews before. When I read this one, I knew I had to make an exception.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a 2013 Nigerian historical drama film directed by Biyi Bandele and based on the Orange-Prize-winning novel, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The film is a love story that follows two sisters who are caught up in the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War.
It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Onyeka Onwenu, Anika Noni Rose, Genevieve Nnaji, OC Ukeje and John Boyega. The film premiered in the Special Presentation section at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.—Wikipedia
Reviewer: C.C. Chuks
Half of a Yellow Sun, a movie set in the 60s—the period before and during the Nigerian Civil War—tells the story of two relationships. Non-identical twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, are involved with Odenigbo, a university lecturer and Richard, a British writer, respectively. The Biafran forces, mostly of the Igbo tribe, are losing the war to keep their sessation state against the British-supported Nigerian forces. Four main characters: Olanna, Kainene, Odenigbo and Ugwu flee Nsukka, together with fellow Igbos, before it falls to the Nigerian forces. Richard, the fifth main character, a white man, gets caught up in the war because he won’t leave without his new found love, Kainene. Olanna and Kainene come from a wealthy family, and have the opportunity to fly out of the country with their parents, but Olanna won’t abandon Odenigbo (whom she later marries). Kainene, the more daring of the two, decides to remain in the citadel of the Biafran Republic, the southeast port city of Port Harcourt, and continue to manage their father’s businesses, believing Biafra will win the war. Ugwu is Olanna and Odenigbo’s help. Nigeria gained her independence from the British Empire in 1960. The Biafran Civil War began in 1960 and ended 1967.
The film opened with twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, preparing to attend a formal dinner with their parents, as the guests of a high-ranking government official, whom their father, Chief Ozobia, hoped to obtain government contracts from. Unfortunately, the conversation during the dinner failed to sparkle. In the end, so did the film. It failed to capture fully the change in fortunes the main characters underwent: The gradual transition from the life they used to know to a life of privation. Mainly, how an upper-class, well-traveled girl like Olanna paid in blood, sweat and tears for choosing to stay back in the country with the man she loved. In the novel, you felt the toll the war took on Olanna and company—on the people around them—how their standard of living deteriorated until the war was lost and won. No doubt, a screen adaptation showing every scene in the book would have made for a very long film. For instance, the movie did not show young Ugwu’s misadventure while he was a soldier in the Biafran Army, after he was captured and forcefully conscripted. Neither did it show Olanna and Odenigbo’s anguish of ‘Baby’s’ (later called Chiamaka) deteriorating health. (Baby, by the way, was the child that resulted from Odenigbo’s night of drunkenness and sex with a girl his mother brought from the village.) Yes, the screenwriter had the tough job of deciding on how best to tell the story—where to start, what to include and what to leave out. Sadly, the scriptwriter appeared more interested in covering an expansive storyline within the nearly two hours the movie would last than delivering an entertaining film. The plot moved too quickly; all the scenes seemed to have a time limit, most of them feeling somewhat rushed, like Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding, which was disrupted by an air raid. (In the book, aerial bombardments were a common occurrence, and Odenigbo had devised a ‘fire drill’ in which his family ran into a bunker near their home whenever they heard explosions. The air raid that interrupted their wedding celebrations had caught them while they were far away from their shelter, and so they had been in great danger. The much-abridged movie did not make the viewer appreciate this.) What about the manner in which Kainene found out about Richard’s infidelity—that he had cheated on her with her twin? It turned out to be an anticlimax because the writer—probably, after considering the length of the movie—hastened it, and did not allow the fears over Kainene finding out to build. The result of this stop-and-fast-forward screenplay between fade-ins and fade-outs was a movie that failed to generate any real tension or excitement. If you’ve read the novel, the movie would feel broken up into a timeline of ‘significant’ events.
Again, the dialogue throughout the film was less than scintillating (vapid, in fact), and seemed mostly aimed at advancing the plot. Scriptwriters should learn to engage the services of dialogue writers, especially in making dramas, so that they can just focus on the script. A novel is not a play; not all the spoken words can be found between its covers. And so, scriptwriters, when penning dialogues, ought to be creative in putting down things that weren’t said in the novel. It’s hard work. To do this well, they would have to understand the characters—deeply. In the opening scene, Kainene asked Olanna, “Would you be spreading your legs for the Right Hon. Minister in exchange for Daddy’s contracts?”, giving the impression that Olanna was a woman of easy virtue—an impression you never got from the book. This was a misinterpretation of a major character. The reason the movie felt rushed could have been because the speeches were curt, straight-to-the point, and, most times, crucial to what happens next in the story, rather than helping the viewer appreciate the characters better.
My advice is, read the novel before watching the movie. The movie depicted a badly-written shortened form of Chimamanda Adichie’s award-winning novel. It failed to capture the pulse of the book or the heroism of Olanna because the screenwriter, like a bad tailor, cut and joined various parts, and in the end, delivered an untidy dress: a sketchy, watered-down story that lacked the poignancy of the novel. The movie tried to give us what the scriptwriter adjudged to be the prime cuts. Frankly, it didn’t pull me in; I was always aware I was watching something staged, not something organic. What else did I expect from a plot-driven script (not character-driven one)?
The movie would have been better if it were told through three narrators: Olanna, Richard and Ugwu. It would have had the profundity it lacked, had stronger characters, a sequence of events easier to follow and given the viewer a better appreciation of the people of Nigeria—the three major tribes: the feuding Hausas (in the north) and the Ibos (in the southeast), and the seemingly neutral Yorubas (in the southwest). Using Richard Churchill, a British citizen, as the narrator’s voice would have given foreign audiences a better appreciation of Nigeria and the Biafran War. Richard was a writer who, after seeing the suffering of the Ibos, had written to the British Government (which equipped the Nigerian army with weapons) to end their support on compassionate grounds. His narration (even if it was just his) would have been right for the movie. But instead, going by his movie depiction, it was easy to forget he was a writer. As a character, he was nearly a ghost—featureless and uninteresting.
How many, after watching the movie, would know why it was called ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’? Well, let me fill you in. One-half of a yellow sun is the symbol on the Biafran flag. Richard’s narration could have explained this. In the entire film, that flag appeared only in one scene (It should have been more). And would you believe it? The half of a yellow sun symbol on it was not mentioned throughout the movie. Such major oversights were forgivable if you saw the filmmaker the way I did: a person whose main goal was to cross the finish line under two hours. And the screenwriter as someone who may have read the novel but certainly not felt it.
I hope that some time in the future another moviemaker will attempt to do justice to this great literary work. And if successful, such a movie would not be so forgettable.